Lovelessness demonstrated

Let Love Be Your Highest Goal

“Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it – because it does.”

Eugene Peterson 1 Cor 14:1 The Message

One of my greatest joys is to witness the biblical principles of love being acted out in the local church. But if I were to be honest, I would have to say that some of my most negative experiences of the practical application of biblical love have been witnessed in the church. I am grieved when I see believers fight, display anger, or take sides in disagreements. Most of the time, these conflicts aren’t over matters of doctrine or complex theological issues, but instead, they are about personal preferences, differences in how “we” do things, or our unwillingness to submit to the needs or desires of others.

You may argue that these things are common, even normal, in any organization where people of different backgrounds, ethnicity, education, sex, age, and financial means gather in numbers regularly – even in the church. You may say a strong, bible believing church can weather such storms.

The church at Ephesus was a strong, doctrinally discerning church, despite being planted in a city known to be a hotbed of every kind of cult, superstition, and false God of the day. Jesus himself praised the church in the second chapter of Revelation.

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Revelation 2: 1-3 NIV

He commends the church for their hatred of the works of darkness (Rev 2:6), “the works of the Nicolations,” a pagan, immoral, heretical Christian sect. The Ephesian church’s rejection of the Nicolations and their teaching was an example of their love for Christ and God’s Word. Scripture teaches us that love hates “what is evil” and “clings to what is good” (Rom 12:9).

Jesus specifically notes that they were enduring hardships for him. The church at Ephesus took on this burden out of love for Jesus.

The church at Ephesus was exemplary, a model of strength, sound doctrine, love, and patience. Surely, such a church could weather some minor storms and conflicts.

Unlike his letters to the church at Corinth, or Philippi, or Thessalonica, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians did not address any particular error or heresy. But something went wrong.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.

Revelation 2:4

In some way, the church had changed. The literal translation of the Lord’s word is: “you have left your first love.” The emphasis is on the word “first,” so Jesus is referring to a love that the church demonstrated when they first planted and started their life together as the bride of Christ, as a church body.

The verse doesn’t specifically say love for Jesus, or love for one another, or love for unbelievers. So it’s safer to understand this as a reference to Christian love generally. In the great commandment, we are told to Love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our minds and also to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

The book of Acts describes the earliest days of the Christian church, saying “With one accord they continued to meet daily and to break bread from house to house, sharing their meals with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people” (Act 2: 46-47). But something happened, and the Christlike spirit of love was no longer present in the church.

Whatever the case, Jesus had some pretty harsh words for the church. He said they had “abandoned” or “given up” the love they once had. This implies purpose. In other words, this was not an accidental forgetting or wandering. No, they had made a choice not to “keep [themselves] in the love of God” (Jude 21). And as a result, Jesus was now threatening to remove his presence from the church!

Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

Rev 2:5 NIV

Good works, friendly faces, warm welcomes, wisdom, discipline, hardships, hatred of sin – none of those things can make up for lovelessness. Paul tells us to be on guard, to stand firm in our faith respecting God’s precepts and keeping our doctrine sound. He tells us to act like mature adults and to be courageous and strong. But none of that counts for anything if we don’t do it with love (1 Cor 16:13-14).

What about your church? What about you? Love can grow cold while outward religious performance still appears to be acceptable – or even praiseworthy. Is your church or even your heart at risk of losing the presence of Jesus? And if it is, what do you do about it?

Fortunately, Jesus provides the answer. He tells the Ephesians to: remember (consider), repent, and do the things you did at first.1

REMEMBER:Remember (or consider) how far you have fallen.” Jesus says they’ve fallen. In other words, they’ve backslidden, they are not what they once were spiritually. To remember means to recollect past feelings and actions, but not in a passive sense. It’s not dreaming about the good old days. Remember is a command of the Lord Jesus. It requires that we make an effort to recall the past joys, deeds, attitudes, and experiences of the life of the church to repeat them and act upon them. Remembering these things will help the church and us to see and admit our lapses of love. Remembering will lead to repenting.

REPENT: Another command of the Lord. To repent the church and we must like the church at Ephesus: Accept Christ’s evaluation of our fallen condition; Judge ourselves according to Christ’s word and have found ourselves to be sinful and deserving of divine discipline; Grieve over the loss of love and displeasure to Christ; Turn away from our sin and return to a past life of love, and: take appropriate action. The lesson is that sin must always be dealt with; it cannot be ignored.

DO THE WORKS YOU DID AT FIRST: We must eagerly seek to re-engage in the deeds of love that we once did but have since abandoned.

So. What were the results? Did the church at Ephesus remember, repent, and do the works they did at first? For the answer to that question we have to get a little “extra-biblical” because the scriptures simply don’t say. So we have to turn to some of the writings of the earliest church fathers.

One such man was Ignatius the Bishop of the church at Antioch. Ignatius wrote a letter to the church at Ephesus at the beginning of the second century. In that letter he writes that they were a church characterized by”faith and love through Christ Jesus our Savior2; and that they “love nothing but God alone3.”

So, many years after John recorded the revelation of Jesus the evidence indicates that they took action. In Ephesus we see a church still thriving and very much alive and filled with the presence of Jesus himself.

“He who has an ear, declares the Lord, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Revelation 2:7 NASB 1995
  1. Alexander Strauch, Love or Die (Lewis & Roth Publishers 2008), 20 – 23 ↩︎
  2. Ignatius, To the Ephesians, 1 ↩︎
  3. Ignatius, To the Ephesians, 9 ↩︎